When starting a new workout routine it is tempting to go to your nearest supplement store and load up on pre-workout and post-workout supplements as these supplements have been marketed to help you optimize your workouts. Who wouldn’t want to get more benefit out of their workout?
However, we sometimes view these supplements as a shortcut to reach our fitness goals. The reality with any fitness supplementation is that the supplements are just the icing on the cake, and a well-designed workout routine and diet plan are the foundational components for any fitness goal.
Pre-workout supplements contain ingredients that boost energy and are geared toward promoting better endurance and performance at the gym. Post-workout supplements contain readily available amino acids and other building blocks that feed fatigued muscle and support recovery. Before purchasing pre or post-workout supplements you should ask yourself three questions:
1. What are your fitness goals?
Some people go to the gym to build muscle, while others go to lose weight. Your individual fitness goals are a factor in designing an exercise plan, dietary plan, and ultimately deciding if or when to include supplements.
Weight loss is achieved by burning stored energy in the form of fat. This happens during your workout, several hours after weight training, and through maintaining lean tissue. A pre-workout supplement may be beneficial for boosting metabolic rate and energy for your workout. These supplements include ingredients that help mobilize stored sugars and fats in the body, making them readily available for your body to burn.
On the other hand, a post-workout supplement such as a protein powder supplies easily absorbable energy, which your body can utilize instead of your stored fat which may slow down weight loss.
People looking to build muscle mass may find both pre and post-supplementation of benefit. As previously mentioned, pre-workout supplements help to increase endurance and energy, which can help you push your limits at the gym and challenge your weight lifting routine. Post-workout supplements provide muscle building blocks that help your muscles repair, grow and recover, allowing you to work out more consistently as well as build lean tissue.
2. What are the alternatives?
Taking a supplement can be convenient, however, it may also be expensive. There are alternatives to pre and post-workout supplements. Understanding which ingredients are included in many pre and post-workout supplements and understanding what they do can help you identify alternative strategies for your workouts. A few strategies include caffeine and eating protein after workouts.
Caffeine is a well researched and common ingredient included in many pre-workout supplements. Caffeine has been shown to increase stamina, focus, and workout intensity (Martinez, Campbell, Franek, Buchanan, & Colquhoun, 2016). The amount of caffeine included in pre-workout supplements is typically the equivalent of consuming two or three cups of coffee. A reasonable and inexpensive alternative to a pre-workout supplement can be as simple a few cups of joe.
Protein after workouts
Amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of muscle, which is why many post-workout supplements include primarily amino acids. You can skip purchasing protein powder, and simply cook a cup of chopped chicken breast which contains about 42 grams of protein (Food Composition Databases Show Foods, 2019) and eat this right after your workout. Keep in mind that unlike chicken breast, the protein in protein supplements is broken down into single amino acids, which do not require much digestion and are rapidly absorbed and available to muscles.
3. How do you feel before and after your workouts?
Sometimes the decision to take a pre or post supplement depends on the way your body is responding to your exercise sessions. Keep in mind that often people are feeling tired, sore, and overall not great because they start to overtrain or rapidly increase intensity before their bodies are adjusted. It is also possible that you may be experiencing a medical condition, so always consult with a health care professional before starting a supplement to improve how you are feeling.
Taking a supplement like pre-workout supplemented with caffeine can make you feel more awake and motivated to go to the gym. For those that need that extra boost of energy to get them moving, caffeine, found in pre-workout supplements can be a good option especially for those that are performing aerobic exercises like jogging or sprinting (Grgic et al., 2019).
Sore muscles are a healthy part of a good workout, but if you are remaining sore throughout the week and feel like your muscles are not recovering then post-workout supplements which often provide a combination of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals which support your muscles remove metabolic wastes and repair, can help you recover more quickly (Arent et al., 2009).
Just remember that the most important part of getting to your fitness goals is not the supplements, but a well-formulated diet and exercise plan. Everyone will have specific concerns that they are wanting to improve or address and whether you choose a pre or post-workout supplement will depend on the type of concern identified. If you are unsure about what specific pre or post-workout supplement is right for you, consult with a licensed healthcare professional that has experience with supplementation.
Dr. Kasey Nichols combines both theoretical and practical knowledge when using drug-free pain management to achieve the best results with his patients.
He served as the director of medical operation and administration at a national substance abuse disorder organization with 16 facilities across 7 states. He has a private practice at Onyx Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Kasey received his doctorate from The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.